How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing | The Nation


How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing

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I am once again peripheral to the larger story. But when CBS lost pro football, and then a bunch of affiliate stations, to Rupert Murdoch's Fox, everybody freaked. One Thursday, I went in as usual to submit a script for TelePrompTing, record the voiceover for my tape package and go home again to watch more television. Later that afternoon, the executive producer called. The then-president of CBS News--he's gone now, Eric Ober, or how likely is it that I'd be telling you this?--had seen that I was reviewing a TV movie forthcoming on Fox, a feature-length reprise of the old Alien Nation sci-fi series, and he'd hit the roof. He had to go to an affiliates' meeting next Monday morning. They would chew his ears off after hearing their own network promote a program on the evil empire's competing schedule. I said I had been specifically promised that this would never happen; that, anyway--and never mind my poor powers to cloud anybody's mind, including A.C. Nielsen's--it couldn't really be my problem if the stock of the corporation went up or down, or if the president of CBS News had to go to an affiliates' meeting or a therapist. I was told they'd get back to me, and late that night they did. The president was adamant. Then, I said, I guess I'll have to quit. Don't be silly and overreactive, I was told. And then the executive producer handled me. A month before, I had proposed a piece about Doris Lessing, on the occasion of her 75th birthday and the publication of the first volume of her autobiography. Nobody, then, had been interested. But now, if I wanted to sit down immediately and write it up, they'd run it on Sunday in place of Alien Nation. Quid pro quo, Q.E.D., ad nauseam and beat vigorously.

This article is adapted from a lecture that was part of a
series on self-censorship in the media given at New York University. The
lecture series is being published this month in The Business of
(New Press).

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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It occurs to me that thirty years ago Life rejected one of my "Cyclops" columns, about Richard Nixon as a jack-in-the-box television President: Surprise! Look what Daddy brought home from the cold war! A secret bombing of Cambodia! Then, too, I vented at length to a sympathetic but helpless editor. The next day, Life sent me a brand-new color TV set--my very first. All night long, with my children, I shopped for friendship in the gorgeous beer commercials. So Doris Lessing is a sort of color television set.

What followed Doris Lessing--since, if I couldn't review the network competition, I refused to review CBS, although cable and public television were still fair game--was some strong encouragement for me to branch out more, into movies and books. This made rationalizing easy. More books is always better. Free movies spice it up, even while you quickly realize that TV is more various and interesting. They still, amazingly, let me say exactly what I want to about abortion and capital punishment, racism and homophobia, misogyny and war. (We are hired for our stylistic bag of tricks, our jetstream vapor trails, not our politics. Had my politics been right-wing rather than left, somebody else would have overpaid for this vapor.) And there's a new president of CBS News. If I combine network shows in a thematic clump, one from column A, two from column B, I'm back in the consumer-guide business. What's more, this wandering in the wilderness has led me to realize that we end up, in the cultural-journalism business, reviewing the buzz more often than the artifact itself. That the more money spent on promotion, the more attention we have to pay, no matter what our opinion. If it is heavily hyped, it automatically becomes newsworthy. So long as we are talking about what everybody else is talking about, we will sound smart. Never mind the little foreign movie with the distracting subtitles--nobody else will review it, either. So I'm smarter now. Flap your arms if you think you're dreaming.

The sad thing is that, since now at last I am old enough to be too old, almost, for network television--a demographic undesirable to the ad agencies--my very senior citizenship means that my children are out of college, I own the roof over my head, and I ought to be immune to the terrors of authenticity. I need not be beholden to those who choose to leak on me, nor belong to any hard-wired paradigm that imagines itself a fourth branch of the government, even a separate country, with its own pomp, protocols, dress codes, foreign policy and official secrets, lacking only its own anthem and maybe a helicopter beanie. And yet the Times paid for that house, CBS bought me a new kitchen, and in the last decade I have vacationed in China, Egypt, India and Zimbabwe. I've actually stayed in hotels like the Danieli in Venice, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Oriental in Bangkok, in spite of the fact that I know I don't belong there--that you can take the boy out of his class, but not that class out of the boy.

This is the deepest censorship of the self, an upward mobility and a downward trajectory. Once upon a time way back in high school, we thought of reporters as private eyes. We thought of journalism as a craft instead of a club of professional perkies who worried about summer homes, Tuscan vacations, Jungian analysis, engraved invitations to Truman Capote parties and private schools for our sensitive children. We scratched down an idea on a scrap of yellow paper, typed it up on an Underwood portable, took it below to the print shop, set it on a Linotype machine, read that type upside down, ran off a proof on a flatbed press and seemed somehow to connect brain and word, muscle and idea, blood and ink, hot lead and cool thought. But that was long before we got into the information-commodities racket, where we have more in common with Henry Kravis and Henry Kissinger than we do with paper-makers, deliverymen and Philip Marlowe, or those ABC technicians who were so recently so alone, on strike, on Columbus Avenue. After which our real story is ourselves, at the Century Club or Elaine's or a masked ball charity scam--Oscar de la Renta, Alex Solzhenitsyn and Leona Helmsley invite you to Feel Bad About the Boat People at the Museum of Modern Art--with plenty of downtime left, after we have crossed a picket line by e-mailing our copy to the computer, to mosey over to Yankee Stadium, where Boss Steinbrenner will lift us up by our epaulets to his skybox to consort with such presbyters of the Big Fix as Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, and you can't tell the pearls from the swine.

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